The term robotics conquers up images of armies of humanoid machines, intent on taking over the world. Movies like Terminator, I Robot, and Star Wars suggest that robots are all about hardware. Certainly, modern robotics includes plenty of hardware applications, including home cleaning bots and the supremely orchestrated robotic tools along automotive assembly lines. But underneath the hardware lies sophisticated software.
Most recently, robotics has spilled over from machine-held applications to a great number of software-only or “bot” applications. We will favor the latter in this story, but will also cover the hardware side, too.
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What is Robotics?
Robotics is often referred to in the IT industry as either hyper-automation or intelligent automation. Each of these combine the power of robotic process automation (RPA), artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), business process management (BPM), and other complementary technologies, to deliver a digital workforce.
“Robotics primarily augments an organization’s resources by taking away the mundane tasks human workers are overloaded with, empowering them to focus on the profit-driving initiatives only people can do,” said Joe Collura, VP of Solutions Engineering, Americas, for SS&C Blue Prism. “End-to-end processes can be re-imagined in order to best serve customers, employees, and key business objectives.”
What is a Software Robot?
Just as a physical robot in a factory is geared for industrial automation and other applications, a software robot is the equivalent for a knowledge worker.
Bots can be implemented anywhere that staff is clicking around and working on a computer all day. They are used to improve efficiency, take care of manually intensive tasks, and save knowledge workers time so they can focus their energies where it counts.
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Robotics Applications: Pioneers
SS&C Blue Prism was an early entrant into the highly regulated financial sector in the early 2000s, providing secure, scalable automation for areas such as compliance and finance. Financial institutions, too, have been increasingly been deploying intelligent automation. Other pioneering markets in robotics have generally been in the physical space and industrial automation warehouses.
“The last big breakthrough in software robotics was through a company called UiPath,” said Erol Toker, Founder and CEO of software robotics platform Truly. “They gave people the ability to build a robot that worked like a macro on a desktop computer. You could get it to record tasks that a lot of people do in the back office and automate a lot of those jobs away.”
That kind of basic automation, he said, doesn’t require a lot of intelligence and doesn’t use the full capabilities of AI and robotics. Take an insurance example: people submit their bills in the form of fax or email, somebody takes that communication, and inputs it from one system into another, or maybe an image comes into one system that needs to be scanned or translated over.
Although not a pioneer, healthcare is now among one of the strongest adopting sectors. The COVID-19 pandemic propelled that industry to achieve more in months than they had in the previous few years. Hospitals reorganized resources and building layouts, moved consultations online and, in some cases, adapted non-medical facilities to deliver care to those who needed it.
“The pandemic encouraged healthcare to accelerate their use of automation, with a majority using it to replace paper documents and innovate patient pathways,” said Collura.
As mentioned, where robotics are really growing is in the front office. Businesses are trying to scale how they communicate and serve customers. That’s always been a protected area, due to the traditional view of human interaction that people buy from people.
But ongoing trends challenge that concept, going all the way back to ATMs, when people said the same thing. In many use cases, convenience matters more than a relationship. What people want to do is eliminate the time spent with a teller so they have more time with a higher value person such as an investment advisor.
Robotics Use Cases
The use cases for robotics cover the gamut. Whether it is finance, human resources (HR), customer or patient experience, or supply chain, robotics eliminate remove many manual tasks.
Onboarding automation lays out the many tasks to be accomplished, from the people to be alerted to the training modules to be studied automatically. Bots track progress and create alerts. Through automation, candidates get a more seamless and efficient experience from first contact to their first day on the job. Plus, employers and key stakeholders get increased visibility and intelligence across the entire onboarding process.
Finance and Accounting
Organizations can streamline and automate critical, end-to-end processes. These include revenue forecasting, cashflow forecasting, margin forecasting, purchase order processing, sales order processing, invoice processing, and collections. On the higher end, robotics can also assist with compliance, security, and risk monitoring.
Organizations can implement virtual self-service channels, including chatbots, integrated voice response (IVR), and email so agents can rapidly access information and automate manual, repetitive tasks. “Contact center bot solutions can significantly shorten resolution times and increase both customer and agent satisfaction,” said Collura.
Companies like SoftBank are creating robots that serve tables and clean floors in restaurants. The idea is for them to deal with the menial, repetitive tasks, while freeing up workers’ time to engage with customers and improve the dining experience.
Pioneering organizations in retail have proven that there is plenty of value in automation. The pandemic opened retailers’ eyes to the transformational potential of intelligent automation.
Bots are being introduced to automatically generate personalized offers utilizing personally identifiable information (PII). Customer returns can also be processed in multiple downstream applications by bots using data entered by contact center agents via a single web form. This minimizes the risk of transcription errors, reduces the call duration, and ensures customers receive the best experience.
“Through intelligent automation, omni-channel virtual agents can extend the reach of customer conversations for speedier outcomes and reduce cost,” said Collura. “Organizations can quickly understand what your customers want and connect them with the expertise they need to get things done.”
Software bots are now getting involved in more sophisticated workflows. Rather than a dumb macro that reproduces some work, the bot can replicate certain tasks done by the sales rep such as figuring out what the next step is with a prospect.
“A lot of people said people would never buy online and would only want to buy from a sales rep, whether in the consumer or B2B space,” said Toker. “But research by Gartner says that 74% of people don’t even want to talk to a sales rep, if they can avoid it. A lot of sales tasks are being grabbed by chatbots on websites, and in areas such as bot assistance for long-term nurture programs.”
Some believe that writing is being taken over by bots. Apps such as Dolly, Copy.AI, and Jasper are trying to disrupt content creation, information distribution, and search uses cases. They can certainly do basic compositional tasks. A few experts in AI think that bots are ultimately going to replace writers. Good luck with that!
In many cases, bots are being used to write software code. Traditional software engineering involves a coder being given requirements and then writing the code. People need to be trained to write this code or learn it on the job. That approach costs plenty in terms of time and money.
In contrast, generative AI is being developed to create bots that largely commoditize a lot of code writing. Perhaps basic code will be generated by bots based on requirements. The bot can refer to a huge library of code examples. More specialized or cutting-edge coding, though, would be done by individuals. Another way it might play out, according to Toker, is the appearance of “prompt” specialists whose job it is to take requirements and translate them into a language that the bot can understand.
Robotic Process Automation
Robotic process automation (RPA) is a traditional area of robotics strength. It is getting a facelift courtesy of intelligent automation.
This entails the convergence of multiple patterns of execution, including:
- Discrete tasks (stateless) requiring RPA.
- End-to-end workflows and case management requiring business process management.
- Cognitive processes involving complex decisioning and unstructured content requiring AI and ML.
- Dynamic collaboration and conversational processes requiring virtual agents and chatbots.
- High throughput system-to-system workflows requiring systems and application integration.
“Artificial Intelligence and ML will be an embedded capability within every intelligent automation platform and predictive and prescriptive workflows will become the norm,” said Mummigatti. “Core data science capabilities like automated model development, performance optimization, and drift management will become essential capabilities in every platform.”
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The Future of Robotics
With processes becoming more complex and fragmented and with many workers being remote or in different locations, figuring out where and what to automate has become even more challenging. Thus requires engaging the broader organization in the deployment of intelligent automation and getting more non-technical employees involved earlier in automation ideation and discovery. Closing the skills gap in the creation of automated applications and bots will undoubtedly lead to higher adoption rates and better outcomes.
“This can only be achieved when organizations can guide and support teams to follow standardized approaches with governance so that the business is empowered to not only identify but specify and manage the automations themselves through a federated model,” said Collura.